The democracy of cooperation.

In the previous blog, 2JAN12, I said:

“Our formal democracy seems at present to be pretty much blocked for us. But in all societies there is an informal democracy of communication and cooperation which is much more important and which is the foundation of the formal democracy. Societies don’t work very well without it.  Our system now depends heavily this now worldwide communication and cooperation system.”

What is this “informal democracy of communication and cooperation”?

A number of people join together in order to work toward some goal or goals together. We can call this  a human group or a human organization. The individuals in the group are cooperating, more or less. It is more or less because nothing is perfect, cooperation is rarely 100% however cooperation is measured. Cooperation requires communication among the members of the group. They must all have more or less the same goal or goals. Working together requires communication to coordinate the group members’ activities, their behavior. So cooperation can never be perfect because communication is not perfect since information transfer always has a possibility of error, and understanding of goals will never be 100% alligned. So there are degrees of cooperation.

This then is the democracy of cooperation.

Humans are social creatures. We cooperate, more or less. How did we get this way? We became what we are now through two processes of evolution: biological and cultural, genetic and memetic. The biological, genetic evolution gave us our bodies and basic physical structure. The cultural, memetic evolution gave us our thoughts and ideas. Actually it is not as clearly cut as this because each evolution affected and affects the other. Cultural evolution could only build upon the capabilities biological evolution gave us. But also, cultural evolution fed back on and influenced the biological evolution of our bodies and brains. So it is really only one evolution where the biological, genetic evolution has morphed into the cultural, memetic evolution. Cultural, memetic evolution is occurring vastly faster now than biological, genetic evolution. Cultural evolution has overwhelmed biological evolution.

So, our biological and cultural evolution led to our cooperation in groups. Through science, technology, art — all human activities — cultural evolution continuously adds information and new knowledge for us to use. So our cooperation has much more information to communicate among the individuals in a human group. In a word, our cooperation, how we cooperate, is also evolving. Consider the speed, even the acceleration, of the recent evolution of corporations.

Since in order to cooperate a group of humans must communicate with one another, the size of the group and the locations of the individuals were constrained by the means of communication. For a long time the size of a group of humans working together, cooperating, was limited to that of a family or small number of related families — a clan or tribe — because they had to be able to speak to one another. This also required that the individuals be physically near each other.

Not any more. The individuals in a cooperating human group can be almost anywhere on the surface of the earth (or near earth in space). And the size of a communicating, cooperating group is no longer limited by the distance a single human voice can go before it can no longer be heard by another person. Note the Mic check of Occupy Wall Street. Nor is the locations of the individuals limited by the necessity of being physically close to a speaker.

So every human group has its informal democracy whereby the people in the group vote with their communications, their speech, and their actions, their behavior. Other members of the group receive these communications and observe the behavior of the other members of the group, and then react in one way or another. This ongoing evolving process influences the behavior of the individuals in the group and thus the resultant group behavior toward its goals. This is legitimately a kind of democracy.

Is this informal group democracy a “one person, one vote” system. It would seem to be unless there are some rules, some structure that the members have agreed to that would say otherwise. It is also true that in many even informal groups, some individuals often have more influence than some others. This can occur if some individuals have more or better knowledge about the goals or how to attain them, of if they can communicate better, or if they have more charisma, more charm, or by whatever combination of qualities more people listen to them than they listen to others. Similarly for some copying the behavior of others. Also some individuals for whatever reason do not choose to participate as much as others.

So we have identified two ways in which groups of humans can deviate from what we may call equality of voice or one person, one vote. First there are often leaders and followers. (Notice we can’t separate the two. There can be no leaders without followers. There can be no followers without leaders.) Second, the group may have agreed on some rules, some structures which allow more influence to some members than other members. For example a teacher in a classroom is a leader, the students are followers most of the time; A coach of a sports team is a leader, the players are followers, but also sometimes a player may be also a leader that other players follow; In a company organized in a hierarchy of units (for example some number of sections organized into a department, some number of departments organized into a division, etc.) the managers of the units are each leaders (or should be) with the other members of the units being followers, but like the sports team there can be leaders within the group of followers.

In many societies, in free societies, being a follower or a leader is almost always a voluntary action, since in the absence of promises otherwise (contracts), anyone can quit the group at any time. (Being a leader or a follower is not always a voluntary action because a person may not be aware that he or she is a leader or a follower, but they can still quit if they don’t like how the group is operating or they don’t have its goals.) A teacher can quit, the parents of a young student can send the student to another school, students can quit paying attention while remaining in class. A coach can quit, players can quit. Employees can quit their company, or quit in place just like students. A person can even quit a horribly authoritarian oppressive system, at least mentally, as some concentration camp members did in WWII. To quit the group is the ultimate no vote.

We still have the freedom to form new groups: Freedom of Assembly. We can form new clubs, associations, new partnerships, new corporations, for profit or not for profit. We can form new religions. The number of people in each and their physical locations are no longer limited as they were in the past.

If our present political/economic systems are not working for us, we can form alternate or parallel systems which do work for us. This indeed is what is already happening as more and more people are excluded from participation in our present systems through unemployment of all kinds, through lack of education, through poverty. People form co-ops of every kind and legal and illegal (black) markets. People form subcultures which exclude outsiders. People “turn on, tune in, and drop out” as Professor Leary said. One way or another people make other arrangements when the “official” systems don’t work for them. There are many, many possibilities. The occupy movement with its general assemblies and its internet dispersed non-physical form is a baby to be nurtured. And if this one doesn’t work out, there will be others.



Speeding up Cultural Evolution

In previous posts I have discussed deficiencies in human thinking as described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. The discovery and explanation of these deficiencies can reinforce pessimism. We might conclude that human thinking is so messed up that we are doomed to failures, confusions, mistakes that it’s a wonder we ever do anything right. Our economic theories are mostly crap; our democracy has been captured by the 1%; wars continue. Our understanding of human thought and behavior is wrong. Why bother to try to change or improve anything. Since our thinking is full of errors, confusions, illusions, delusions, conceits, and unwarranted optimism we would be foolish to try to fix anything that isn’t working or is working poorly.

If unwarranted optimism is bad, unwarranted pessimism is much worse since unwarranted pessimism leads to inaction, depression, and even death.

So how can we be optimistic after reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow”? We can be optimistic because we can see it as part of the larger process of cultural evolution. Groups of humans more or less working together — families, tribes, clubs, associations, corporations, towns, cities, states, nations, all organizations — change and evolve their social and individual behaviors by discovering, generating, assimilating new ideas through doing science and art and other social and individual activities. We invent new things, we make inspiring movies and videos, we speak and write stories and novels and poetry, we create images, symbols, illustrations and paintings. This is the process of change and evolution of human groups and of human cultures in general. Evolution is more than just change. Evolution builds on what came before. Change could be anything. The way cultures change is by building on what they already have. Thus cultures change through evolution.

Kahneman provides scientific facts about mistakes in human thinking he and other psychologists discovered by doing psychological experiments on groups of people living mostly in the last half of the twentieth century. Some of the mistakes in thinking he described may result from the physical structure of the human body and brain. Examples might be certain optical illusions and the fact that our memories do not store all the information about an event that we have at time of the event (see the cold hand experiment — Kahneman p. 381-383). A person might think that if a deficiency results from such structural factors that the error is then inherent to the nature of humans. But humans are adaptable. I am not saying that we can learn to store in our memories all the relevant information for the cold hand experiment (although I suspect we could with training), or that we can train our sensory systems to avoid sensory illusions. But we can, if are aware of dangerous situations, if we learn the categories of situations in which mistakes sometimes or often occur, then we can work around them, we can avoid them by thinking in a different way. As Kahneman said:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. This is how you will proceed when you next encounter the Muller-Lyer illusion. When you see lines with fins pointing in different directions, you will recognize the situation as one in which you should not trust your impressions of length. …” — Kahneman p. 417.   

So Kahneman discovers and spreads the word about deficiencies in human thinking. This is not bad news. It’s good news. Now we know more about mistakes we often make and so we can correct these mistakes, work around them, or otherwise avoid them. This is progress. This is cultural evolution at work.

Most importantly, this new knowledge, as it spreads through the human population, will speed up cultural evolution since cultural evolution depends on human creativity which depends on human thinking, human choices, human decisions. So if we can learn to think better, learn to make better choices, learn to make better decisions, this will help us create new useful and beautiful things, help us create more humane and just social arrangements, improve our own individual behavior both with respect to ourselves (improved physical and mental health) and it will improve our behavior with respect to others.

There are many other things which have speeded up and which will speed up cultural evolution in the future besides just improving our thinking. Some are: cooperation, competition, care for others, maximal individual freedom, democracy, art, science, engineering, many human inventions such as writing, printing, mechanized farming and transport, mass education, computers, expansion of interpersonal communications (cell phones, the internet).

And for the future, to speed up cultural evolution, very shortly after now, maybe directed non-violent revolution — a pushed non-violent evolution towards a world whose economic and political systems will more justly distribute the goods produced by humans as a whole so that each individual person has the basic human necessities in order to live and thrive. These include food, clothing, shelter, education, health, maximal individual freedom consistent with the freedom and well-being of others, all in accord with the earth’s limited resources and preserving other life on earth.

This is not impossible. We can adopt this goal and work toward it. We will modify our economic and political systems carefully, one step at a time, always with the goal in mind, evaluating each step (did it get us closer to the goal, did it cause harm, did it have any unintended consequences). Then repeat, repeat, repeat. This is trial and error. But trial and error is mostly all we have here or in any other human activity. The grand, glorious theories have failed. Forget them. Maybe take some parts of them, some smallish principles, and see if we can use them to modify our present systems and move us closer to our just distribution goal. Since this is a non-violent evolution we must build upon what we know now. If some idea from our present systems would seem to bring us closer to our goal, use it, try it out, test it to see if it actually does work to bring us closer to our goal.

But look for new ideas too. Especially those which look likely to speed up our directed revolution.

Perhaps the very idea that there is some grand and glorious theory that can explain, model, and predict human economic behavior is itself a monstrous example of the Illusion of Validity. See Kahneman, chapter 20, “The Illusion of Validity”.

The very idea that such theories exist, or must exist, or could exist if only we could find them leads to a lot of wasted time and mental energy. Worse this idea is pernicious for at least two reasons. First is that the current candidates for grand theory are so wrong that they cause serious harm in the real world. Second, when people glom onto one such theory as the correct theory, the one and only true way, they cut themselves off from the possibility of change, and they try to cut everybody else off from the possibility of change and improvement too.

These are reasons why the revolution must not glom onto any grand economic type theories. Discard them all: Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, etc. (What other “ism”’s are there?). At most take pieces, smallish parts, maybe certain principles, certain ideas from any of them which look like they might make sense, might work in a new pragmatic framework that is being evolved carefully from our present system, and then adopt provisionally, check, test, evaluate, to determine if this old idea might actually work in our new evolving system to actually bring us closer to our just-distribution system.

Down with Grand Theories. The only test for any modification of our systems, any policy change, any new law, should not be does it conform to some theory, but rather it should be: Does it bring our systems closer to our just-distribution goals.